There’s a reason that comic books, or at any rate the comic book culture, shares such an emotional overlap with more straightforward fantasy epics that tend to involve kingdoms and witches and battles for the hand of a fair maiden. They both at heart revolve around outsiders who have been burdened with an extraordinary task and often imbued with some kind of power to get the job done, or at the very least receive some kind of supernatural assistance. If you plotted the relation between comics and fantasy on a Venn diagram — and I know half a dozen of you are doing that right now — you’d see an almost completely shared space in the middle, excepting things like Superman or dragons. So it makes sense that comic author Neil Gaiman’s fantasy-leaning novel Stardust would make for a great story, and an equally entertaining film in the hands of co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn. Stardust is filled with legitimate adventure, suspense, romance, humor, pathos, and enough self-awareness to make it a worthy successor to The Princess Bride, but on top of all that, the film absolutely nails the sense of individualism and personality that permeate the best stories, regardless of genre. It’s a film about growing up and making decisions and figuring out what it means to be a man, and it also happens to have Robert De Niro as a gay flying pirate. What more could you want?
The film begins 150 years ago in the English village of Wall, so named because it borders a long stone wall that serves as a kind of geographical and interdimensional boundary between the regular world and the Kingdom of Stormhold. A young man named Dunstan (Ben Barnes) dodges the guard and hops the wall one day and journeys into the adjacent village, where he meets up with Una (Kate Magowan), a princess who’s being kept as a slave girl by a witch known as Ditchwater Sal (Melanie Hill). Unable to escape the witch’s spell, the two still have a passionate night together, and nine months later a baby in a basket is left at the wall for Dunstan. That half-royal boy grows up to be Tristan (Charlie Cox), a naïve 18-year-old who grew up on our side of the wall with his father and knows nothing of his odd parentage, and who also has developed a blind, shapeless love that only the very young can create for Victoria (Sienna Miller), a girl in Tristan’s village who does nothing more to earn his admiration than be beautiful. That’s admittedly a lot of exposition to cover in just a few opening scenes, but Vaughn keeps the story moving quickly enough that these few characters are established enough that the film begins to stand firmly on its feet, if a little wobbly at first. The larger story doesn’t begin to unfold until Tristan attempts to woo Victoria one night as a shooting star falls from the sky and lands far on the forbidden side of the wall, and he declares he will fetch it for her as a sign of his devotion and to possibly persuade her to marry him.
But the star didn’t fall on its own. It was knocked out of the sky by the dying king of Stormhold (Peter O’Toole), who hurled his enchanted necklace into the sky and let it bring a star back down to earth, offering the necklace’s stone as a reward and promise of the throne to whichever of his greedy sons can find it first. The squabbling princes do their best to kill each other off, but Septimus (Mark Strong) and Primus (Jason Flemyng) take the lead on the race to reach the stone. Vaughn establishes the film’s running tone in the first sequence with the king and his sons, landing somewhere between period-piece melodrama and smirking self-awareness, and largely succeeds in blending the two. It’s somewhat of a hindrance to Vaughn that Stardust comes along so late in the game, well after everyone is familiar with what it means to deconstruct a fairy tale like Rob Reiner did with The Princess Bride; if anything, the unconventional choice would have been to sell the story straight, letting the humor rest solely on character interaction and not on the hinting subtext that the film is somehow aware of its genre trappings, and therefore willing to make jokes at the expense of what a viewer would typically expect. For instance, before the king dies, he asks one of his sons to walk to the castle window and survey the kingdom, at which point another son promptly kicks the first one out the window to his death. It’s done for a laugh, and to establish that Stardust intends to function both as high adventure and genre commentary, but Vaughn pulls it off.
So Tristan sets out and finds the falling star, who’s taken the form of a woman, Yvaine (Claire Danes), and is clearly not pleased to find herself ripped from the heavens and trudging around the woods. It’s another fresh turn that Yvaine isn’t any kind of damsel in distress, but is mainly pissed at Tristan when he doesn’t offer her any real help and instead basically kidnaps her, promising to help her find a way back to the sky if Yvaine travels home with him to be presented as a kind of prize to Victoria. The rest of the dense but enjoyable narrative charts their attempts to make it home, all the while avoiding the princes looking for the stone Yvaine is wearing around her neck, as well as steering clear of Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), a witch who wants to cut out Yvaine’s heart, which contains the magical elements of eternal life.
That journey home is a big one, and includes more than a few brushes with danger, as well as help from allies like Captain Shakespeare (De Niro), the aforementioned gay pirate who crews a flying galleon and provides some of the strangest and funniest scenes in the movie. But it’s Tristan and Yvaine’s burgeoning relationship that begins to drive the narrative, and the inevitable romance and suspense arising from it are no less suspenseful for being somewhat easy to spot. Being a star, Yvaine shines when she’s happy or at peace, and in certain scenes Danes is painted with soft light emanating from her face and head that’s downright beautiful, exploding forth in the kind of unabashed radiance that only makes its home in stories like this one, stories about and by and for outcasts, where no one has to worry about being too geeky or sentimental or fitting in.
It’s that fitting in that comes back to haunt Tristan throughout the film, as he begins to realize his love for Victoria was largely born of his desire simply to be regarded as something other than a poor boy who worked in a shop. Cox is charming and low-key in the role, and the chemistry with Danes is equally simple but believable. While Yvaine gradually softens over the film, Tristan undergoes the gentle transformation from bumbling, eager boy to a more confident hero, spurred to do something better with his life by Yvaine’s own question to him: “Why fight to be accepted by people you don’t actually want to be like?” It’s a question Gaiman and Vaughn have already answered, and to see their hero do the same is never less than compelling. There are many good moments in Stardust, and even a few great ones, but it’s the film’s willingness to carve its own path that makes it so watchable, and inviting, and even touching, as it throws cynicism aside. Stardust is entertaining and smart, but most of all kind, and completely unconcerned with changing itself if that means sacrificing one ounce of honesty or devotion.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.That Moonglow Gave Me You
Film | August 10, 2007 | Comments ()